The Future of Collaboration

In this episode of The Future Of, Sean McDowell, Senior Vice President of Design and Innovation at MillerKnoll; Jim Kalbach, Chief Evangelist at Mural; and Rich Knepprath, Creative Director at Fresh Consulting, join host Jeff Dance to discuss the future of collaboration. They dive into best practices for effective hybrid workplace collaboration, tools for innovating collaboration today, as well as the evolution of work.

Photos of host and guests

Sean McDowell – 00:00:00: I think the collaborators are going to be the winners. I think the collaborators are going to be the ones that can grab the smartest people around the world and bounce ideas off of them. And the people who are going to wind up losing at the end is someone who just thinks, I’m the smartest person in the room and I’m just going to figure it out on my own.

Jeff Dance – 00:00:20: Welcome to The Future Of, a podcast by Fresh Consulting, where we discuss and learn about the future of different industries, markets, and technology verticals. Together, we’ll chat with leaders and experts in the field and discuss how we can shape the future human experience. I’m your host, Jeff Dance. In this episode of The Future Of, we’re joined by Sean McDowell, Senior Vice President of Design and Innovation at Millerknoll, Jim Kalbach, Chief Evangelist at Mural, and Fresh’s Creative Leader and Director, Rich Knepprath, to discuss the future of collaboration. This is a topic I’m really excited about. We have what I consider three experts on collaboration. And given that we have three, and we typically have one on the show, I’m gonna do some quick intros so I can brag a little bit about who we have on the show today. Starting with Sean, as the Senior Vice President of Design and Innovation at Millerknoll, previously Herman Miller, before Herman Miller and Knoll kinda came together, they’re a globally recognized leader in design since 1905, over 100 years, they have a portfolio of company brands. So it’s pretty cool to have you as the kind of design leader and innovator who directs multidisciplinary global teams there. Before joining Millerknoll, Sean spent 22 years leading Nike’s design and innovation teams. He’s actually received over 52 utility and design patents in the process and invented new products driven by biomechanics and ergonomics. Thank you for being here with us, Sean.

Sean McDowell – 00:01:57: Thanks, Jeff. Yeah, excited to be with you.

Jeff Dance – 00:01:59: Jim Kalbach is Mural’s Chief Evangelist and also an author of five books, including Collaborative Intelligence, which is a relevant topic for today. He has been focusing on usability and design since 1997 with roles that span Razorfish Germany, LexisNexis and Citrix Online, currently at Mural. Mural is a collaborative intelligence software company whose intuitive digital whiteboards are trusted by actually 95% of the Fortune 100. So it’s a significant company that we’ve seen just grow so much in the last few years and we’re big fans of the technology. And so we’re also really excited to have you with us. Thank you for being here with us.

Jim Kalbach – 00:02:41:  Yeah, great to be here. Hey, everybody. I look forward to the discussion.

Jeff Dance – 00:02:46: And Rich is Fresh’s Creative Director and has over 25 years of experience in leading multidisciplinary design, spanning art direction, illustration, UX product, branding, video, printmaking and more. And he’s led teams at companies like Dell, Trapdoor and Redroc, where he was the executive creative director. Rich, thank you for being with us and for helping us, helping inspire this very topic.

Rich Knepprath – 00:03:11: For sure.

Jeff Dance – 00:03:13: Anything else that you can tell the audience? Just think about this topic of collaboration, the future of collaboration. Anything else about your background that’s relevant to this topic before we go deeper?

Sean McDowell – 00:02:22: Maybe I’ll just touch on one thing. In between the 22 years at Nike and Millerknoll, I did four years consulting. Two of those years were during the pandemic. And I think it just sort of completely changed this old school way of thinking about collaboration and started to enter into new technologies and new ways of working. So you almost had to like, relearn what we had done in the past. And I’m actually, there’s a lot of advantages to today’s world. So it’s gonna be a great topic today.

Rich Knepprath – 00:03:48: I think I’d probably want to point out that as a young designer, I was not highly collaborative. And so my passion for collaboration as a design leader over the last 10 or 15 years has been challenging to try to think about from a younger me perspective, some of the suspicion of like, what are the downsides of collaboration? And so we’ll probably hit on some of those topics today.

Jim Kalbach – 00:04:13: Yeah. I’m thinking along the lines of Sean’s comment as well too, that I think the pandemic brought about some indelible changes to what we mean when we say collaboration. And we’re just at the beginning. I think this is literally a beginning point for our renaissance. Completely rethinking what that means and the fact that collaboration is a competitive advantage that we can’t ignore.

Sean McDowell – 00:04:39: Thank you for that.

Jim Kalbach – 00:04:40: That’s right. And now we might have access to some of the best minds in the world just because of some of these same video conferencing capabilities.

Jeff Dance – 00:04:48: Speaking of the best minds, you know, if I could take your collective intelligence and put it in like a generative AI LLM right now, like I would actually pay for that. Might make me like the Darth Vader, but I think the collective intelligence here is a little overwhelming. So I’m excited to see if we can actually collaborate as collaboration experts. As I think about the audience and bringing this group together, I was thinking, okay, we have someone that’s at like a tech company that also has a lot of science around people. We have someone who’s at a workplace, like environment company that brings like a design lens and a people perspective. And then having worked with Rich for a long time as a design leader, I know he brings deep insights from a psychology perspective, which is, you know, the heart of people and design. Really excited to have all the mental juice here. I actually am really passionate about collaboration. I may not be an expert. I may have my 10,000 hours of experience, but I was inspired to start my company fresh after reading a book called Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration by Warren Bennis. I still recommend it and I still feel like I’m learning. And so to hear from you, Jim, like, hey, we’re at the beginning. That’s awesome sort of concept. It’s definitely the foundation of work, you know, now and into the future. So what are the secrets to incredible collaboration? That’s what I think we’re here to kind of dive into. Let’s start with you, Sean. What do you see as like physical and digital tools, methods that have really increased diversity and inclusivity in collaboration, which has been an important topic over the last three or four years?

Sean McDowell – 00:06:16: Well, let me start by giving a shout out to Jim and his company, Mural. We use you guys all the time and it is a wonderful, wonderful tool. I mean, it allows everybody to sort of jump in and add notes as you go. And so one of the potential advantages, maybe you’ve seen this, maybe not. From my perspective, it’s really helping with introverts and extroverts. There’s a lot of introverts that maybe get steamrolled by the extroverts in the room, the talkative folks, and you’re not always able to capture those ideas in the moment. Mural is a great source of pulling everyone into the conversation. If someone’s got an idea, they can drop it in right away. Some people like to sleep on things and the next day they come back and add to the board. So all of those are real advantages. It also gives me sort of one version of the truth. Everything is here on this page, right? It’s not like you took separate notes and you took separate notes and you had a different take away and they had a different takeaway. This is where we’re kind of landing. So a central repository of our work is fantastic.

Jeff Dance – 00:07:17: Rich, what about you? What are best practices or secrets for digital hybrid workplace collaboration? I know it’s a very passionate topic for you. Where does one plus one equal four?

Rich Knepprath – 00:07:28: Yeah, or three. I’d just be satisfied with three. I end up being a little bit more interested in the behavioral elements, and I’m excited to see tools like Mural or other tools embrace some of the behaviors necessary for communicating. So right now we can see each other’s facial expressions and our eyebrows move up and down and corners of our mouths that give us a little bit more insight to our intent and our meaning. And I call that presence. I think presence is a crucial part of collaboration and a little harder to do remotely or in a distributed team but I’ve seen teams super successful when embracing some of those behaviors or those ways to prepare and approach for a conversation or a creative collaboration.

Jeff Dance – 00:08:17: Thank you. Jim, what about you? What is, you’ve written a book on collaborative intelligence. What are some of the patterns that make for best practices?

Jim Kalbach – 00:08:25: Yeah, I mean, just to continue some of those themes that Rich and Sean brought up, I think what we’re seeing is a decoupling of work from a place. And we used to say, I’m going to work, and it literally meant going to an office. And the wear of collaboration was given and the one thing that the pandemic showed us is that actually collaboration can happen in different places, right? What that then does is it opens up the door for collaborating at different times. So for me, it’s adding that whole other dimension of not only where you’re collaborating, but when you’re collaborating. There’s a famous, I think it’s a New Yorker cartoon where somebody’s looking at a screen and they say, I guess that meeting could have been an email, right? And it’s starting to get this question of like, do we even need to be synchronously collaborating or can we add asynchronous to the mix as well too? So for me, it’s about decoupling the where and the when of collaboration. What that then, just to continue Rich’s point about the human aspect of it, is the how changes. Even just simple things like, how do we take turns in a meeting? If we’re all together in the same room, you can just go around, right? Left to right. You can’t do that on a Zoom call. So what do you do? You do popcorn or you do something alphabetical. Well, that doesn’t work in a hybrid session where there’s half the people. So the how of something as innocent is how do we take turns as a group? Changes in all those different modes. And guess what? The how in async is different as well too. So for me, it’s really thinking about decoupling the where, the when and the how, and then building those back up from the ground up. That we can’t make any assumptions. Something as innocent as, I raised my hand to ask a question, doesn’t work in those other modes and we need to rethink those. And the way that I think about that is, we need a new common sense. And that’s why I think we’re only at the beginning of this because we don’t have that common sense yet. How do I collaborate in these different modes? And what are the rules of engagement and the etiquette and the norms and the practices and the standards? We’re at the beginning of learning that. And when I say we, it’s like capital we. Like you’re all included, like, you know, okay, you put me up here as an expert, Jeff, but I got as much to learn as everybody else does in this new world of the how of collaboration and developing a new common sense.

Sean McDowell – 00:10:38: Things have changed and that requires new learning. Even if you’ve written a bunch of books on it, you’re saying, hey, the environment has changed, our outside is evolving, the tools are evolving, so we gotta evolve too. When I was consulting, we were working on a new sailing boat. It’s the middle of the pandemic. When I was creative director for the Olympics, we would actually go to the location, meet with sailors. There’s some real advantages to that, but it requires a lot of travel and there’s a lot of potential difficulties in that. I didn’t know how we were going to do it during the pandemic, but what wound up happening was we had access to some of the best sailors all around the world. Folks from Brazil, folks from Greece, folks from New Zealand, and they all called in at different time zones. We made it work. Oh my God, it was one of the richest sessions that I’ve ever had. Just because you had the best of the best, and we were used to asking questions and distributing and pulling people into the conversation, it wound up working in a digital format and I was convinced that it was not going to work, and it wound up being one of the best sessions.

Jeff Dance – 00:11:42: Love it. You mentioned synchronous collaboration. We talked about asynchronous collaboration with great tools like Mural. I find a lot of value in synchronous, asynchronous and that you can actually use tools when you’re present as well and do some hybrid things. I think this is all evolving, like you said. Sean, from your perspective, as you think about physical space, we went full remote for a while, we’ve been coming back, we have different policies. Still, a lot of us are doing some hybrid things. Tell us more about how physical spaces affect collaboration.

Sean McDowell – 00:12:17: Yeah, I think that’s an excellent question. I mean, I think all of us have experienced environments where it’s working and environments where it’s really not working. As Jim said, I feel like we’re just at the beginning stages of this journey. We’re shifting from working at a specific location, whether it was farming all the way to a business, thousands of years of us working together and collaborating and sharing stories over an open fire to then now this new way of working. So sometimes it’s working and sometimes it’s not from a physical space perspective. But we’re seeing a massive shift in our real estate footprints with our partners asking for collaboration spaces. They’re walking away from these workstations that were the norm for a very long time. I’m not sure anybody loved open air spaces, certainly like benching where you’re sitting, packed in one person next to the other. When you’re in these hybrid environments and you’re having a video call right next to me who’s having a video call right next to them, it blows up, the whole thing doesn’t work. Then everyone’s fighting for conference room spaces and not everybody has those. So everybody’s asking for new solutions, new opportunities. Blending of that physical and digital becomes really critical. Other experiences that we’ve all probably had too is you call in and someone is blacked out on their screen, and you can’t get those facial expressions that Rich talked about. You can’t get that engagement. You can’t see, is someone listening to me or not? Then the reverse is true too. Maybe you’re at home and you call in and a whole bunch of people are in a meeting room and their faces are about this big, and you can’t see them or read the body language that’s in the room. Many times you get ignored if you’re calling in because they just have a physical conversation that they can all read each other. Those are all the hurdles that we’re currently trying to overcome, I think with physical spaces and with digital tools.

Rich Knepprath – 00:14:16: Sean, you brought up an interesting point earlier where you talked about the thousands of years of us learning how collaboration helped us evolve as a species. I have thought about that even pre-pandemic quite a bit. Because as soon as you get to the office, that learning seems to break down and we start becoming very cagey and defensive, and different reactions and behaviors take over. Leading design teams, I found that to be a blocker for collaboration, in that there’s a sense of competition. Everyone has a different speed in which they think and they solve their individual problems. Collaboration sounds very scary to some design contributors. As Jeff was saying, I think a blended, synchronous and asynchronous approach allows for those different speeds. Tools that can normalize those different speeds in a place that’s a common area for collecting ideas like Mural is great. But yeah, it can be really challenging to overcome the competitive fear that if I don’t speak right now or I don’t show my design right now and get feedback, I’m going to be left out. It’s interesting to have to deal with those psychological burdens.

Jeff Dance – 00:15:37: Time is now scarce for most people. It feels scarce at least. Then you’re coming together for these moments where collaboration is crucial. This is your time now when you’re together. How do you maximize that and know that if you’re yin-yanging, between in a remote setting and then coming back together, it’s like you have to relearn these different behaviors and leave some other things behind. I could see that a lot. Jim, for you, you mentioned we’re starting over. like, we just heard from Sean from a physical perspective, how a lot of things are changing right now and need to change. From a digital perspective, how have you seen things change in the last few years?

Sean McDowell – 00:16:11: Yeah, I think digital actually, for me, is that’s the substrate that’s going to tie it all together, that moving in and out of async and sync, or moving in and out of remote versus together in person, the thing that’s going to tie it together. The glue, if you will, is thinking and working digitally and digital first, which is interesting because then what that means is there’s an effect back on your in -person collaboration. There’s a return to the office movement right now. I don’t know if you saw Zoom just announced. Zoom, of all people, just announced they’re calling people back to the office. Not necessarily a bad thing because you get that personal context. But I think what the assumption is we’re going to go back to the old way of doing things. They’re like, no, you actually can’t do that because there might not be people there or you might not be there tomorrow. So, therefore, all of that collaboration that happened in the hallways or on butcher paper or sticky notes physically, I think we need to be thinking about digital in physical as well too. That’s one of the big changes that I think I’ve seen post-pandemic is, we might be going back to the office, but we can’t go back to the way that we used to do it. We need the new how. I was talking about this new common sense is, okay, now we’re in a room and we may all be together. How do we do that digitally so that it’s as natural as just pulling out a sticky note? Because I’m going to need that digitally eventually. I’m not against butcher paper or sticky notes because I got it right here to myself. I’m not saying throw that away. But we need to think about how do we get from there, how do we get it back into the digital so we can all work from home on Friday, or so that we can all work asynchronously as well too. So it shifts everything. I mean, it shifts everything. And again, I don’t have the answer. I know what questions to ask and I do have some advice and things like that. But I think we need to learn our way into figuring all this out together.

Jeff Dance – 00:18:04: Thank you. Rich, you kind of talked about collaboration can also not be efficient. So when is collaboration more efficient? When is it not? Any kind of rules of thumb that you guys have, Rich, start with you, but any thoughts on that?

Rich Knepprath – 00:18:18: Yeah, I think. What I’ve noticed is that, as I’ve alluded to before, in the beginning of my career, I found working solo and late at night, all hours of the morning, and coming in with a grand idea worked for me as an individual. And I later found out how frustrating that was for my teammates. But I still think that the independent time for creatives is incredibly important. So I think just initially I found that I can get teams to be very collaborative with one another if we have established a shared vision together. We’ve formulated trust within the group to leave the group, come back into the group, and that there’s a trust that people are doing their proverbial homework and coming prepared, and then being vulnerable enough to share that work or share their thinking and get feedback. And great collaboration looks like building and building on each other’s ideas and moving things forward. But that’s all very hard, as Jim alluded to before. I mean, some of the things we’re talking about, we want them to be incredibly simple. They actually have to be incredibly simple to work, very intuitive, and they’re just not yet. And I guess my worry for 100 years from now would be, are there enough people like us who are interested in talking about this, moving some of these concepts forward to ensure that collaboration is still a big part of how we make things and how we do things?

Jeff Dance – 00:19:46: I think you’re indirectly hitting on the fact that people are just very complex. And when we bring all that complexity with us to any sort of team environments, any new situations, you know, Jim, from your perspective, how do we keep things efficient together?

Jim Kalbach – 00:20:01: Yeah, a couple of things come to mind. One of them is around pace. So we talked about synchronous versus asynchronous collaboration, and I’m starting to lean away from asynchronous and think about pace. We even mentioned you can be working asynchronous together. The important part there is you have control over the pace of collaboration. Because I think what has happened is our mental model of collaboration came from being together in the physical office space. Anytime I needed to work with my team, I called a meeting. Right? And when you take that into the remote or the all digital world that we experienced during the pandemic, you end up with Zoom fatigue. Even the spontaneous things are now scheduled. Right. It’s really about balance now. I think the key to unlocking a lot of this, in my opinion, is adding more asynchronous collaboration to do exactly what Rich mentioned, which was to allow people to work at their own pace, so that their own cognitive style or even time of day, I’m a morning person, I’m a night person, is great. But don’t eliminate those synchronous moments as well too. It’s about rebalancing that away from mostly synchronous and a little bit of asynchronous to 50-50 or something like that. Because as much as people don’t want to waste their time in meetings, people don’t like meetings, we like to meet. There’s a very human side of collaboration that is productive, effective, and things like that, but it’s also like, I go to work because I like meeting with other people, and work is also social and personal and human at the same time. We don’t want to get rid of meetings, but we need to rebalance things so that people have control over the pace of collaboration while they still have the chance to be able to meet. Sometimes face-to-face as well too. Fly halfway around the world for that yearly retreat. That’s super important. If it doesn’t go away, it’s really just about recalibrating all of this, I think.

Jeff Dance – 00:21:55: I agree, not being maybe extreme in one or another. I love this concept of meet versus meetings. And certainly I’m sure you guys have experienced all as leaders, like I can call four less meetings if I can just do quickly grab with someone meet. And then it’s not disingenuous that like, we’re only gonna chat for three or four minutes, but we’re gonna accomplish something versus if I set up a Zoom meeting for three or four minutes, it feels disingenuous that you’re only gonna spend three or four minutes with me. Whereas it’s like, oh wow, we just had a great, deep little moment when we met in person. Sean, what about you? Where do you feel like collaboration can be more efficient and when is it not?

Sean McDowell – 00:22:29: Yeah, I think from my perspective, we do a ton of collaboration, especially upfront in the early stages. We get the right people, we get a lot of smart people. I’m a big fan of mixing folks. So like I love this call, for example, because we’re all kind of coming from different places. So I like some of those wild cards and introducing that into the upfront part, having kind of an open whiteboard where we’re all putting our ideas in. And then it tends to be as we work our way down the path and we start to agree upon the solutions and we’re sort of all bought into the concept, then it can open up to just individual working time where people can crank and get the job done. So I’m kind of a big fan of stacking it upfront.

Jeff Dance – 00:23:10: Upfront alignment, that makes sense. What about this? Like as we think about work in general, what kind of work needs the deep collaboration and what does not? Just open that up to the group.

Sean McDowell – 00:23:22: I’m coming from a design and innovation space. I think from an innovation, if you’re really going to come up with something new, there’s lots of smart people in the world that can invent ideas from scratch. But I do think that the best ideas come from some of that teamwork or just thinking outside the box or thinking differently. Maybe to pull it on a thread that Rich was putting out there earlier too, a 100 years from now, it’s super optimistic, but I think the collaborators are going to be the winners. I think the collaborators are going to be the ones that can grab the smartest people around the world and bounce ideas off of them. The people who are going to wind up losing at the end is someone who just thinks, I’m the smartest person in the room and I’m just going to figure it out on my own.

Jim Kalbach – 00:24:04: One of the things that we’re recommending, and we have a couple of little exercises around just is to actually look at the types of collaboration interactions that you have with the team and ask based on your specific situation, which ones are better synchronously synchronous and which ones could be asynchronous. And very often it’s things like, info shares, announcements, and even status updates. That can all be done asynchronously at your own pace. Right? So, then when you get together, those are the creative moments or decision-making moments. We have a little exercise we call it the rhythm of collaboration, and that’s that rebalancing or the recalibration that we need to do, that the office space itself before the pandemic actually governed a lot of the rhythm of collaboration. When you take the office head of the equation or make it hybrid, then suddenly you need a new heartbeat, a new pulse to that, and it needs to be rebalanced by doing exactly what I think you suggested, Jeff, was to think about when do we need to actually get together synchronously and meet, which may not be a meeting, by the way, and when can we work at our own pace, and literally visualizing that balance of team interactions and recalibrating it from that standpoint.

Jeff Dance – 00:25:18: That’s cool. I mean, as you think about Mural being a collaborative and intelligence tool and all your deep thinking behind that, suggesting when this is important to have synchronous collaboration as well, even from that perspective, would be kind of like REI saying, go outside, don’t come into the store and buy during their day. Interesting line of thought there. Sean, what about you? As you think about collaborating with teams, you mentioned innovation, creativity, and upfront. When do you not need to kind of get together or do as much collaboration? Any thoughts there?

Sean McDowell – 00:25:51: Yeah, maybe just continuing that thought sort of towards the back end. I’ve got a lot of designers and engineers on my side that need time to just crank. And so designers for some of that creativity, once we’ve aligned on the direction, having blocks of four hours, five hours at a time has proven to yield the best results when they can kind of get in that creative flow. To Jim’s point, not over scheduling people where they’ve got a meeting every hour and then they’re going to try and design somehow in the evenings or weekends. That’s sort of absurd. So blocking that creative time and space. And same from an engineer’s perspective. There’s a lot of heavy lifting that needs to be done in order to make something bulletproof and strong and worthy of mass production. And so that takes just good, hard working time. And a lot of that is individual time.

Jeff Dance – 00:26:43: So you have purpose and alignment up front. You’re gonna focus on that deep collaboration, but then you’re like, hey, you have that now run, and you don’t need as much team time. Of course, you’re gonna come back together, but you need some of that deeper kind of thinking and concentration time.

Sean McDowell – 00:26:55: Yeah, and whenever anyone runs into a roadblock, that’s when we can kind of come together and solve it. The analogy that I draw a lot is, once we decide that that’s the mountain that we’re gonna climb, you can walk around different trees and boulders. You can make all of those choices by yourself. You don’t need to check with me or with the rest of the team on like there is an obstacle in front of me, because I know that I gotta get up that hill. That gives people a little bit more freedom and autonomy to do what they need to do. But let’s say it’s a cliff and they don’t know how to cross it. Maybe we all get together and figure out a way to create a bridge.

Jeff Dance – 00:27:30: Makes sense. We heard a lot of studies about remote work where they were saying, oh, it’s more productive to be remote, but then, We had other studies that showed a different thing where it wasn’t more productive. And I think it really comes back to kind of the type of work. If it’s a routine task, of course, it’s not going to be productive to be with people and get distractions. On the other hand, if there is decision making or creativity or innovation or hurdle or a challenge, it’s like this is where minds come together and we have the inspiration of thought colliding and we get to more efficient progress. So it seems like we have the dichotomy of these two types of studies where we have some people arguing that it’s better here, it’s not better. The reality, it seems like it depends on the type of work that we’re doing, whether it’s more efficient or not. Are you guys aware of any literature or studies that focus in on that that could be a source of inspiration? Jim, have you written that book yet or are you still working on it?

Jim Kalbach – 00:28:26: Not yet. Maybe the next one.

Jeff Dance – 00:28:27: OK. Maybe that’s the part of where we’re all learning, essentially.

Rich Knepprath – 00:28:31: I have an anecdotal story from right at the beginning of the pandemic that I still think about pretty regularly. And I’m kind of curious, I know it’s your job to ask the questions, Jeff, but I’m kind of curious about Sean’s and Jim’s reaction to, and I’m not calling out any other brands in a negative way, but I think Slack fatigue is something that we’ve experienced too. I personally get hundreds of Slack messages a day, sometimes all at the same time, which makes it pretty impossible for me to reply, which can cause frustration on the other end. But pre-pandemic, I was working at an agency where in our offices we had named all of our huddle rooms and our conference rooms after Texas Rivers. This is an Austin based agency. We were also using a Slack type tool. It was actually Discord. We all went remote. We actually named rooms in Discord after those Texas Rivers, after the conference rooms that we previously had physically. That worked so perfectly because we would go into a room and I would see Sean in that room and I would question for Sean. I would join Sean in that room and we’d have that, what Jeff alluded to earlier, is that two minute conversation that had massive value. And then we’d leave the room, just like we would in person. It worked so well and yet I can’t seem to replicate that today with the tools that are available to me. And I’m kind of curious, Sean and Jim and Jeff too, have you had an experience like that or are there some tools that you know about or is Mural working on this in the background? I’d love to, maybe we can give a sneak peek at future features, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Jim Kalbach – 00:30:14: We are thinking about it. I wouldn’t say we have a roadmap item. The way that we’re thinking about it are collaboration spaces and there’s physical and digital. We like to think that Mural can be a very critical collaboration space in the continuum of all these different modes that we were talking about, a digital one at that. What’s the intent behind naming those rooms and what’s the intent behind getting together in those rooms and then how would you represent or fill that need in a digital way? And very often it’s through metaphor. You have a physical room and there are tools out there that have things like spatial audio and different rooms where as you’re talking and your avatar moves away from somebody, it gets quieter and then you enter another space and now I can hear Sean and it’s always on as well too. There are platforms that are trying to do that. We’ve looked at that inside of Mural as well too in terms of distance and breakout rooms and things like that. I think for me though, just kind of zooming out, it’s really about new collaboration spaces and they come with their own new rules of engagement, but it’s really about looking at what is the need there? What is the need that you’re trying to fulfill, Rich, and how might you do that? And being intentional about it, it might still be a hack with some of the tools that you have available to you, but I find if you bring a little bit of creativity and attentionality to collaboration, very often you can fulfill a similar need. Maybe even on Slack or something, oh well, we can actually fulfill that need on a completely different way. Just trying to really be experimental and innovative with how we collaborate through an intentional lens. I wandered a little away from your question, Rich, but I hope that gave some insight.

Sean McDowell – 00:31:51: Well, we started using a really simple method. So we’re also on Microsoft Teams. And of course, you can type somebody’s name in it and just literally call them right away. So we had to set that up front as these are the parameters that we want to work in as a group. Can I just sort of pick up the phone and call Jeff or Jim or Rich? And if you don’t want that call, you just hang up. That’s no problem. We understand. But it is so helpful for that three to four minute conversation. I’m stuck on an email and I don’t have an answer. So I need to call my principal material scientist to help with that answer. Let me just pick up the phone. And everyone’s OK with a three to four minute chat if they’ve got time available.

Rich Knepprath – 00:32:33: Yeah, Jim, you made me think for a second there when you were talking about, you were almost alluding to proximity. And I play Minecraft, that’s about the only hobby I have nowadays. And the way that collaborative games, you used to have to use a tool like Discord and you’d join a call, sort of like a meeting. But there are plugins now, I think one is called Proximity Chat, where essentially when a player is near another player, you can hear their voice and you can interact with them. But as they move away from the player, their voice becomes distant, just like it would if we were in person. That’s really interesting in a gaming environment, potentially that there’s something like that in a professional environment as well.

Jeff Dance – 00:33:11: I like these examples, definitely. Mural put out a report about how only 51% of people are happy or somewhat happy with how their kind of team collaborates. Harvard did a review on kind of collaboration overload. We’ve heard a lot about Zoom fatigue. And so thinking about like where we collaborate and then how we also avoid too much collaboration so we can do some of the deep work. Sean, I’m curious from your perspective as a leader who’s leading multidisciplinary teams, who’s also creative, like how do you make space for some of that deep thought? I struggle myself as a leader to kind of have that.

Sean McDowell – 00:33:45: Yeah, I think I was mentioning earlier there’s structured time and unstructured time and we try and sort of agree upon our operating principles upfront and we do a lot more collaboration and deep thinking time and then make sure that we get that individual time. So generally what we’ve agreed to, again, we’re still sort of figuring out hybrid like everyone else, three days a week in the office, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Monday’s a terrible commute day for most people, so like don’t come in on Monday and then Friday and then Friday’s a little bit of more flex time and I tell my team to just block Fridays, no meeting Fridays, so that you can do your individual work on Friday and it’s just sort of a common practice. You’re just blocked for the whole day.

Jeff Dance – 00:34:27: Nice. Thanks for that tip Jim, for you, you mentioned the digital and the physical, and I think that’s like, as we think about bridging these two worlds that are now becoming commonplace, that seems like a big opportunity for innovation, especially with the advent of the AI tools that we have. You guys are working on it or anything you’re aware of that helps bridge those two worlds together?

Jim Kalbach – 00:34:50: Yeah, and we are looking at AI. I think that’s a good example to blend those together. The one recommendation or piece of advice that I have is you don’t necessarily have to wait for the tools. It’s kind of a chicken or an egg question. Do you wait for the tools to be there before you start inventing or adopting the behaviors, or can you do things now? And I believe that we can do a lot more with our current tool set than we currently are if we take a much more proactive and intentional view on collaboration and say, even if it’s a hack, how might I use the current capabilities that I have? And I see there are just tool sets out there that people are unaware of, but I also think there are innovative and inventive ways to use our current tool set to achieve some of the collaboration outcomes that we’re kind of talking about here. And one of the things that I love about my role, kind of as a vendor, I work with dozens of companies. And one of the things that’s really inspiring to me during the pandemic and after the pandemic is just all the creativity that people are putting into finding new ways to connect as a team, whether it’s presencing to each other or solving a problem or dealing with the hybrid mandates, there’s all this creativity out there. And I guess my suggestion is, yeah, AI and spatial audio and VR even, we do a lot of experimentation with VR here at Mural as well too. Those things all help. I think there’s a lot more that we can do with our current tool set if you put a little bit intentionality behind it.

Jeff Dance – 00:36:21: I think Sean’s point about setting those rules upfront and those behaviors upfront is probably there’s a lot more that could be done there around the intentionality. And then, you know, seeing tools like Mural where you have like these templates that grab what could otherwise be like a four hour training on a methodology that’s just like built in seems like another way to kind of bring some intentionality to the exercise. But I still feel like we’re like babies kind of learning how to walk in how to use the we grab onto them and then it’s like an overload where it’s like, oh, the expectation is that I’m gonna respond like a phone when Slack is meant to be asynchronous, but I’m getting bombarded. Without some of those rules or like etiquettes, it seems like we’re drifting a little bit. Rich, what about like, you’ve thought a lot about collaboration, like where do you see hits where the team doesn’t collaborate well? Any thoughts from a psychology perspective that you can relay?

Rich Knepprath – 00:37:14: Typically, I can see in a group, and I’ve been lucky to build groups from the ground up and sort of establish those things that Sean was mentioning earlier right away that tends to help sort of setting expectations. But coming into groups where they’re already established patterns of behavior and they’ve worked together a long time, or not only am I the new person, but I’m only going to be in for a short amount of time, you know, a couple of months, and how can I get the best out of the team in that short amount of time? Communication between team members often tends to sort of show how much trust and vulnerability there is in that communication, which I think are really foundational in great collaboration. So competition plays into that vulnerability, right? If there’s too much competition, there’s not the right amount of vulnerability in collaboration, and if there’s not enough competition, it ends up being a little bit of a stale sharing of ideas as well. So really just getting that balance right, I think, is what I try to achieve, and trying to establish that shared mutual trust and vulnerability is what I aim for first.

Jeff Dance – 00:38:21: Thank you. Let’s shift a little bit to the future. I think there’s been a lot of depth of insight that has my brain like spinning right now that I need time to process already. But if we start thinking about the future and kind of where things are going, maybe that’ll help us ground us in the present and like what really matters. What are some of the thoughts if we put ourselves out, you know, 10 to 20 years from now, what will collaboration look like? A lot’s changing, a lot has changed in the last few years, but we know a lot will continue to evolve at the pace of how we move today as a world, as a society. So want to open that up. What are your guys’ thoughts?

Sean McDowell – 00:38:57: First of all, a lot of these concepts that we’re talking about, hybrid work and async and tools and stuff, it’s just going to be called work. The new normal, we’re going to have a common sense. So a lot of these distinctions and labels from remote work to hybrid work and it’s just going to be work, I think. But I still think at the core of it, I’m very much so with Rich on the human side of it in terms of trust, starting with trust. But when you’re talking about collaboration, that’s the center of gravity and then it’s a centripetal force from there. Everything else goes from there out. Just reflecting on the aspect that I was highlighting is I think what we need to think about and I think the assumption right now is I can’t build personal connection and I can’t build trust unless we’re face to face. The question is, well, how can we keep those moments of vulnerability which lead to trust? How can we be doing that in a digital way? How can we be doing that in an async way as well, too? And that’s why I’m really excited and I think we’re at the beginning of a renaissance to kind of figure these things out around presencing and vulnerability that ultimately lead to the trust that you need to have teamwork. That’s not going to change in the future. As long as human beings are still in the equation and the AI hasn’t taken over 100%, that you’ll need to start from a place of trust even 20 years from now.

Rich Knepprath – 00:40:15: That’s refreshing to hear and I’m excited that we have somebody like Sean on the cost who’s also thinking about the other side of the environmental aspect of what kind of seating and desks are required to create that forward healthy posture of I’m excited about this conversation and I’m confident for sure and optimistic like Sean said that the future is going to have a lot of bright minds and people attacking the problem. I think observing Jeff your earlier comment about study on one side, study in the other about happiness factor of hybrid or no hybrid things like that to me and this might be a stretch. It feels like that’s an example of companies and individuals not collaborating. Individuals have felt like their company wasn’t taking care of them and the pandemic pushed us into a reactionary state where companies change their entire policies and ways of working to serve the individual but it is more of a reaction than a collaboration and so I’m hoping that companies and individuals listening to this podcast might take that as an opportunity to say what would a conversation and a collaboration session look like at my employment and can we achieve a more authentic holistic experience for our teams to be happy and produce great work or in whatever field they’re in. I kind of feel like and I love to be proven wrong on this but maybe it’s a lack of collaboration that has us still in that infancy stage that Jim talks about.

Jeff Dance – 00:41:47: So now into the future, that’s something to kind of all be mindful of. Sean, what are your thoughts about the future and how things could evolve?

Sean McDowell – 00:41:55: Well, I really liked Jim’s point earlier too, where we’ve got some pretty good tools now, and we should be maximizing those tools and building these muscles as we get to the next stage. But I also reflect about a distant future, maybe it’s five years, 15 years, whatever, where we’re moving a little bit away from the flat screens that are in front of us and a desktop and some of the tools that we have today. I think there’s also this craving for a three dimensional person in front of us at the same size and scale. There’s an equality that comes there. Whether you want to call that holographic technology or whether we get to virtual reality or augmented reality, whether we have a space where we’re living in. But breaking down, I think, this flat screen into feeling like you’re actually in the room with that other person.

Jeff Dance – 00:42:46: Makes sense. And I think we talked about physical digital, it seems like the whole XR space, there’s a lot of evolution to kind of happen there and see how that affects collaboration. But certainly lots of studies and things being done now, just not quite the widespread adoption we all predicted like 10 years ago. But it seems like with the advent of what Apple is doing now getting into this space and with the persistence of Meta and their investment, their long term intent, that we’ll continue to see some products that could have tipping points for like more of that blended high resolution reality that brings us together and makes us feel like we’re closer than we are. Jim, what are your thoughts about XR and kind of how that might affect the future?

Jim Kalbach – 00:43:29: Like I said, we actually have a ventures group here at Mural collaborating with Meta actually on some of those things. That’s even more in its infancy. It’s almost nation. I mean, Sean, you put it well, is that representation as if you’re together, right? And then not just trying to replicate that in a metaphoric way, but actually trying to create that sense of connection. And one of the areas that we’re starting with is not productivity, but team connection actually. And we’ve seen a lot of really good uses of VR in particular to help teams that are dispersed. Feel less lonely, come together, have moments of vulnerability, build trust. It’s actually a great thing to do in VR right now. I think that’ll evolve so that eventually all of collaboration will be augmented along with AI and some other technologies to really paint a fascinating picture of the future of work.

Jeff Dance – 00:44:28: We’ve kind of touched on AI today just a little bit, but let’s go deeper. As we look to the future, how do you guys see AI continuing to affect collaboration? Big way or small way? Love to hear from all of you.

Jim Kalbach – 00:44:40: I think big way, I was just thinking too, I mean, I’m more of an old school designer, right? Like I started and trained like pen and paper on a drafting board and like using markers and creating that way. And eventually the computer became a tool that helped me go a little bit faster, especially for precise drawings and doing manufacturing details and things. I’m just starting to get into AI now and it is completely blowing my mind away. Like it is an amazing tool. We just had a prompt the other day, a new space that we’re exploring and you just go in and type in, here’s the parameters and 50 ideas come back immediately. Now, some of them are trash, they’re just terrible, but some are really good. So being really good at prompting upfront, knowing your creative directions, sending the tool in a direction and then curating that and finding that solution in sort of a haystack, oh my God, I think it’s gonna completely transform way faster than I thought. I thought this was years away and we’re using it as of the last month or two.

Rich Knepprath – 00:45:45: That’s exciting to hear, Sean. I similarly, I think, was a little bit more reluctant, but am really impressed by how quickly I can have early concept ideas in front of me. It almost says if I had a limitless team at my disposal, and a lot of it is junk, right? And so you have to count on your taste to evaluate what we should move forward with and what we shouldn’t, but it’s definitely an exciting time, definitely different from where I started in my design career, but definitely exciting.

Sean McDowell – 00:46:13: Yeah, I was talking about the where of collaboration, the when of collaboration, and the how. I’ve been starting to think about AI as the whole of collaboration, and I think one of the evolutions of the word hybrid is going to be hybrid human machine, that you have a digital double that you bring to work with you. And it’s like, where does the machine end and the human begin and why? In five or 10 years, when we say the word hybrid, we’re gonna look back on this conversation and say, hybrid in the office or not in the office. That’s old fashioned. We’re talking about hybrid, half human, half machine hybrid worker in that sense as well too. But I do see it as complimentary. Somebody might pull a sound bite out from today in 10 years and say, hey, callback was, look how wrong he was. But I still think even in the foreseeable future, there’s going to be a place for the human being around creativity, imagination, trust, taste even. I love that word. Is AI going to have taste or an opinion? Like a human team will? No, I don’t think that. Can they accelerate the brainstorming? Can they accelerate creativity? I think so. That’s why you’re going to have this hybrid worker almost, the whole of work is going to be hybrid, I believe. And complimentary, not replacing 100%.

Jeff Dance – 00:47:30: Yeah, we have the same philosophy. It’s together. And I think for the long time, humans feared computers the same way before they really became mainstream, became an augment of what we do, and truly did change how we work and what we do. And we kind of have the same fear of robots, but truly being deep in the robot space, we have a similar philosophy that it’s together. The future of robots has been actually disparate, but the future is together. We just had a big conference on generative AI and robotics last night, and this is the very topic we went deep on for three hours. So it’s fresh in my mind, but I love this notion of together, sort of augmentation, not replacement, and acceleration. I’m curious as we think about collaboration, like, do we see that bringing people together more or will it bring people like apart more? Any thoughts on that as we think about the future? Because if you have all this information at your disposal or if you could call my AI, 20 years from now and be like, well, what does Jeff think? We could do the podcast with just our agents. You know, any thoughts there?

Rich Knepprath – 00:48:38: I think that if we agree that trust and vulnerability are so crucial to great collaboration, I think there’s going to be a risk at anything disrupting that delicate foundation of how an individual feels that there is trust. But that’s not an obstacle in the way of achieving trust and good collaboration. I just think that. We’ll have to always be on our toes in order to say, like, how does this thing cease to disrupt and more augment and move forward?

Jeff Dance – 00:49:50: Thank you. As we think about technology in the future, technology kind of has a life of its own. It evolves way faster than we do as humans. We’re kind of constantly catching up with the likes of all the innovation coming out of Mural and any other great tool. And these tools can make us better. And as we think about life, we have relationships. We have like the knowledge that we gain. We have our ability to magnify our talents and creativity. And technology can play a role in either helping those things, helping those relationships and our knowledge and our creativity, but it also can hurt our relationships, our knowledge and our creativity. Any thoughts about how we keep technology at a place where it builds relationships, knowledge and creativity? It doesn’t hurt us because we’ve seen both. We see both with these things where it impacts, it’s impacting the next generation in a way that where it’s not uncommon to have like a 50% at least awareness of mental issues that some are bringing back to technology. And how quickly we may be evolved, but didn’t realize what was happening. So I’m just curious with all these great minds in the room. Do you guys have any broader thoughts about how to make sure technology, we use it to better ourselves versus to hurt ourselves?

Jim Kalbach – 00:50:27: That’s a really big question and I think part of the answer is we don’t know yet. I think there’s lots of different levels at which we can approach answering that question, everything from policy and regulation to just norms and guidelines and then personal behaviors. How do you approach using technologies like AI to augment rather than replace? My hope is that that actually shifts the equation more to the human side actually. Then when we talk about work, that becomes not only synonymous with collaboration, becomes synonymous with connection and connecting with human beings to form an opinion or a point of view or be creative into things that, at least right now, AI and other technologies can’t do. For me, I think the future of work is also about the future of lifestyle. The reason why people want flexibility right now is not necessarily so I can work better, it’s actually I want the flexibility so I can live better. My hope is we keep that in mind and we don’t, just like you were pointing to the cell phone, sitting around a cafe, everybody’s got cell phones out or things or cell phone neck. There are all these new phenomena. I hope we approach those problems in the future. It’s really about our attitude and how we’re approaching those new problems, but we don’t know yet what those new things are going to be. But we approach them from a very human standpoint is my wish.

Jeff Dance – 00:51:52: Thank you. I think to be human is to be social, and to be social is to really be collaborative. So I think as we think about the evolution of work and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I would say, hey, we’re getting more and more creative together over time, and that hopefully brings us together, even though we’re leveraging tools like AI and robotics and computers to do some of the more manual, repetitive routine tasks that really humans weren’t designed for. That’s my hope, but I think talking about it, you guys brought up intent a lot today, and how can we be intentional about that in a micro way, but also a macro way? Let’s close with a couple of questions just to wrap up. This whole topic’s been one of collaboration, and I’ve been inspired with a lot of the lines of thinking. As we think about collaboration, who or what inspires you around this topic? Jim, you’ve written a lot of things. Sean, you’ve… And Rich, you’ve guys led some amazing teams where it’s required to be collaborative and innovative. Where do you guys look for inspiration around this topic? Knowing that we’re at the beginning.

Sean McDowell – 00:52:57: Yeah, my thought is access. It’s starting to get really easy to, I’ll switch back to my Nike hat for a second. Having access to some of the best athletes in the world was tricky. You had to sort of go through their agent and you had to fly to Los Angeles and meet with LeBron James and have him try on products. And then it took forever and it took months of planning. To set up a half hour touch base with LeBron James or with Serena Williams or some of the best athletes in the world is so much easier. Especially if I have flexibility on my side. So if I’m like, yeah, let’s do it on Friday. And whenever the opening comes, let’s have a touch base. I’ll send you the product ahead of time. You can try it on and sort of wear test it. And then I want your feedback for 20 to 30 minutes. Oh my God, it’s a game changer. So my access has completely changed over the last several years. And that I think is only gonna continue to grow.

Rich Knepprath – 00:53:56: I’d have to say that the inspiration that I find, especially a lot in the last couple of years, comes from the younger design talent out there. I think they’re, as I hope I was when I was a young designer, very curious about the do’s and the don’ts and the rights and the wrongs. They’re trying to build their bag of tricks that will eventually serve them well later in their career. What they don’t know is that that bag of tricks also comes with a lot of bad habits and things that we develop as the more senior and skilled we get. I think a lot of the best ideas on my team right now come from the fringes of the lack of experience and the lack of having the immediate answer. I’m often writing those things down and creating workshops around them. I would say that’s my answer to where I’m getting the most inspiration from at the moment.

Jim Kalbach – 00:54:48: I get a lot of inspiration from our customers. I mentioned that I’m really lucky in the position that I am, is I don’t just work for one company. I mean, I do, but I get insight into lots of across industries as well too. I get a lot of inspiration from the creativity and the inventiveness, particularly during the pandemic because we’re all thrusting to this new mode of working and people had to come up with things. It was just absolutely inspiring to see how just everyday teams, I don’t want to say that disparagingly, but it’s not a famous author, just people trying to get their work done with their team coming up with very creative and innovative things. Just to give a quick example, very small example as well too, using a panel of webcams, like when you get that Brady Bunch kind of thing of webcams, and then having somebody direct everybody in their webcams to point their hand or hold their hand up in a certain way so that it forms a heart when they took a screenshot. It only works on their screen, but then you send around and you say, here’s our team and we’re forming a heart. It’s like, I would have never thought to use just the lowly webcam. Using it in a really inventive way to connect as a team is, wow, these people are really creative and coming up. So I have a lot of hope and I get inspired just by seeing a lot of the inventiveness that’s out there. A lot of that is driven by necessity because we all come being thrust into remote. Now we’re being thrust into hybrid situations and there’s a lot going on out there that I get unfortunate enough to see and I get inspired by that.

Jeff Dance – 00:56:22: Right. One last question for all of us. We talked about how people are complex and we bring all that complexity to our environment sometimes, our spaces, our meets or meetings. Just to leave it with the audience with a few simple recommendations, maybe one to three tips. I know you guys have already shared some, but to finish off, like, hey, to have the best collaboration for your team, what are like one to, it could be one to, one, two, or three things that kind of come to mind from each of you to leave our audience with some salient sort of simple points to work on.

Rich Knepprath – 00:56:54: I think there’s two perspectives that I think about. One is the, like, the employer, the manager, the company, and then the individual. And I’d say from the individual’s perspective, give the benefit of the doubt to your team members, keep an open mind. That’s a good, good place to start. And then from the company or the manager’s perspective, talk less, be more willing to listen. I remind myself of those two things pretty frequently, definitely daily. They tend to foster the right type of culture for a lot of collaboration.

Sean McDowell – 00:57:28: Yeah, I mean, maybe I’ll talk a little bit more about the physical space because that’s something that we’re dealing with right now. Obviously, there’s a lot of flux and so a lot of corporations that we work with are changing their real estate footprint. And so we have sort of a quote that we drill into them, which is, how can we double the experience with half the footprint? So you’re reducing your space, but you’re making it so much better so that you earn the commute. You get people that want to come in and collaborate and work well with their others because you have created the right tools, both physical and digital, to really get stuff done in that location. And so I think we’re coming with a couple of those hybrid solutions that I think could transform the workplace.

Jim Kalbach – 00:58:13: Yeah. I think about collaboration leadership. Very often we think about dysfunctional teams, which is good and I think we should do that too. But I think there needs to be a new kind of hat or role that leaders and not necessarily execs, but like team leaders or managers, that they need to take this intentionality that we’re talking about on board. Not to do all of it, but I think initiate that and show, if we just stop and think about how we’re collaborating a little bit. So I think about collaboration leadership a lot. Within that, two things. One is make time to connect and reflect. That I think your team is looking for and waiting for, as a leader to say, we’re going to take five minutes before we jump into the problem solving to just connect as human beings. There’s lots of different exercises and things that you can do, even digitally or even async as well too. But then also reflect, not only on the project, retrospective on the project, but think about how did that work as a team? Your time rich to say, I work better at nights and you guys were all morning people. That kind of thing. When you think about leadership as just the first nudge into better collaboration, but specifically taking time to connect and reflect.

Jeff Dance – 00:59:26: Amazing. Thank you, Sean, Rich, Jim, for all your insights and your wisdom as collaborative leaders in awesome spaces, in different spaces. We’ve learned a lot from the show and you’re changing the future. So really appreciate you being here.Thank you.

Sean McDowell – 00:59:43: Thank you all. Thank you, Jeff and Rich and Jim. Great to see you guys. Really good conversation.

Rich Knepprath – 00:58:48: Likewise, Sean. Loved it, loved it.

Jeff Dance – 00:59:26: The Future Of podcasts is brought to you by Fresh Consulting. To find out more about how we pair design and technology together to shape the future, visit us at freshconsulting.com. Make sure to search for the future of an Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or anywhere else podcasts are found. Make sure to click subscribe so you don’t miss any of our future episodes. And on behalf of our team here at Fresh, thank you for listening.